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Wildfire smoke blankets Montana; crews prep for local fire season

Alberta fires
Posted at 6:07 PM, May 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-05-19 10:34:04-04

BILLINGS — Wildfire smoke from Alberta clouded Montana skies Thursday, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is listing air quality for the Billings area as unhealthy for sensitive groups.

"Traditionally we see more smoke in July, August and September," said Clark Snyder, program manager of environmental health science at RiverStone Health. "This is not ordinary for Billings."

RiverStone Health advises everyone in the Billings area to reduce outdoor activity and to go inside if respiratory symptoms develop.

“Smoke exposure has long-term and short-term effects," Snyder said. "Hopefully this doesn’t last long, that it’s going to be a short-term thing. In the short-term people can take precautions. Read the air reports.”

As Canada experiences one of its worst fire seasons in years, is it a canary in the coal mine for Montana and the Northern Rockies?

Al Nash, chief of communications for the Montana/Dakotas Bureau of Land Management, says not necessarily.

"Outlooks are only as good as the weather conditions play out," Nash said.

Nash says fire managers are always cautious in forecasting a fire season, but in general, crews are hired and ready to go.

“We have personnel on duty. We already have some people who are out on assignment elsewhere because it’s quiet here," Nash said. "We don’t have anybody from BLM Montana/Dakotas in Canada, but frankly we’re anticipating another request.”

Driving the fire behavior in Alberta is extended drought and record high temperatures, Nash says, which are conditions not affecting most of Montana.

"Northwest Montana and the Idaho Panhandle are still suffering from some drought—that portion of the Northern Rockies could have an above-average fire season," Nash said. "Northeast Montana, where there’s been so much significant precipitation, looks to have a lower than normal fire season."

As the fire season lengthens on both ends, Nash says fire managers have moved away from using the term "season" at all.

"Fire year rather than fire season," Nash said. "We’re seeing some active fire somewhere in the United States at almost anytime in the year now.”